As the final buzzer sounded to seal Kentucky's many splendored 88-68 victory over bitter rival Louisville last Saturday night, only about half of the record Freedom Hall crowd of 19,663 was still on hand. And most of those fans probably missed what passed for a handshake between Wildcat coach Rick Pitino and his Cardinal counterpart, Denny Crum. In fact, the exchange took place so quickly—"Good-luck the rest of the year," mumbled Pitino with all the diplomacy he could muster—that it was almost impossible to catch with the naked eye. By comparison Bob Knight's brush-off of Mike Krzyzewski after Indiana's loss to Duke in last year's NCAA semifinals was a warm embrace.
Later, at his postgame press conference, Crum praised Kentucky's offense and defense, its athleticism and versatility, its outside shooting and full-court pressure. He paid homage to marvelous 6'8" junior forward Jamal Mashburn, whose 27 points included five three-pointers, and to 6'6" freshman wingman Rodrick Rhodes, whose 20-point effort included some terrific one-on-one moves. But Crum did not compliment the way the Wildcats had been coached. No way. Colonel Sanders will rise from the dead before Crum compliments Pitino. And vice versa. As Pitino said before the season, "Denny and I do not talk at all. We just don't. We're not friends."
And don't expect Crum to book reservations anytime soon at Pitino's Italian restaurant in Lexington, even though fettuccine Alfredo is one of his favorite dishes. Saturday's victory was Pitino's third in a row over Crum—the margins have been eight, 14 and now 20 points—and it firmly established that Kentucky again is the unchallenged king of the Bluegrass State, while Louisville is once more the "little brother," to dust off a put-down once used by Eddie Sutton, Pitino's predecessor in Lexington. Since the schools began this regular-season series in 1983, a series for which Crum had lobbied relentlessly upon his arrival from UCLA in '71, the record is Cats 7, Cards 3.
Even worse from Louisville's point of view, the teams have traded places in terms of image and style. In the 1980s, when Crum won two NCAA titles (in '80 and '86) and made two other Final Four appearances (in '82 and '83), Louisville was one of the few top teams in the country that played up-tempo ball, relying on a withering fast break and full-court press. The Cardinals were the self-styled Doctors of Dunk, remember? Kentucky on the other hand played the physical, boring, ball-control style that was in vogue at the time. The Cards had thoroughbreds, the Cats had Clydesdales. But when the 45-second clock was adopted for the '85-86 season and the three-point shot was brought in a year later, Crum reacted sluggishly to the possibilities offered by the changes, though his teams didn't begin to suffer in comparison with Kentucky until '89-90, when Pitino replaced Sutton in Lexington.
December 21, 1992
After one season, during which Pitino's Wildcats were on NCAA probation and finished 14-14 while the Cards went 27-8, Kentucky raced past its intrastate rival. It had a 51-13 record over the next two years, while Louisville's was a mediocre 33-27. Last season the Cats ended up as the darlings of college basketball after coming within one shot—the answer to Christian Laettner's prayer—of upsetting top-ranked Duke and advancing to the Final Four. The Cards, meanwhile, couldn't even win the Metro Conference tournament on their home floor. Virginia Commonwealth beat them by nine, and Louisville then exited quickly from the NCAA tournament, losing to UCLA in the second round.
The Wildcats have become the loose, with-it program of the 1990s, while Crum's team has begun to look dated, irrelevant. In fact, two days before last week's game, Crum sounded as if he thought the Kentucky series was more trouble than it was worth. "I'd rather open the season with them," he said. "There's so much hype about the game. The longer it goes on, the worse it is." When those remarks reached Pitino, he pulled out the needle he wields so deftly. "Any big game, any carnival atmosphere, I enjoy," he chirped. "Denny may come from a different line of thinking because he's been here a lot longer than me. After a while, it might get monotonous and become a here-it-comes-again type of thing." Translation: I'm Mr. Now, he's Mr. History.
Pitino's arrival at Kentucky virtually coincided with the departure of Wade Houston, Crum's longtime top assistant, who left to coach at Tennessee. Besides losing Houston, who was responsible for much of the Cards' recruiting, Crum also lost Houston's son, Allan, a 6'6" bomber of a guard who was expected to be Louisville's next star. Allan's absence created an obvious void—he's already Tennessee's alltime leading scorer early in his senior season, while Louisville's outside shooting has been dreadful—but Wade's departure has probably been more devastating to the Cards.
In the past Houston had been able to persuade such stars as Scooter and Rodney McCray, Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner to go to Louisville from the New, York-New Jersey area. Now Louisville has nobody from that region, while Kentucky has Mashburn from the Bronx, Rhodes from Jersey City and Andre Rid-dick from Brooklyn.
Indeed, the Cardinals have grown so desperate for big-time talent that Crum, who never took a transfer from a four-year school in his first 22 years at Louisville, jumped at the chance to get 6'9" center Clifford Rozier, who left North Carolina because he couldn't be an instant star in Dean Smith's highly structured system. (Rozier probably looked all the more attractive to Crum because he had wanted to go to Kentucky but ran afoul of an NCAA recruiting rule while on his campus visit to Lexington. When Kentucky declared that they wouldn't sign him, Crum gladly scooped him up.) Although Rozier reportedly has demonstrated some of the same shortcomings with the Cardinals that he had shown with the Tar Heels—while sitting out his transfer season, he didn't work hard in practice to improve his glaring weaknesses on defense—he still gives Crum the inside game that Louisville so obviously lacked while going 14-16 in '90-91 (the Cards' first losing season since '41-42) and 19-11 in '91-92. "Cliff's all right, but sometimes his judgment isn't that good," says Louisville point guard Keith LeGree, who's also an outstanding baseball prospect in the Minnesota Twin system. "I'll be asking for the ball, and he'll be wanting to dribble it. He's got to learn to give the ball up, things like that."
In Saturday's game, which gave Crum's program a perfect chance to prove it was living in the present instead of the past, the Cards, fueled by a frenzied crowd, roared out to a 30-20 lead. Near the end of that run Rozier rejected one of Rhodes's shots all the way to the press table and then woofed so viciously in Rhodes's face that he was called for a technical. As it turned out, that was the emotional peak for Louisville. The Cats' press began forcing the Cardinals into turnovers, and on offense Kentucky started knocking down threes, most of them from Mashburn, Rhodes and 6'8" junior reserve Gimel Martinez. After Martinez passed up a three-point opportunity and was called for traveling, Pitino took him aside and said, "If you're not going to take that shot, you might as well transfer. We take those at Kentucky." After taking the lead with a 14-1 run, the Wildcats pushed their bulge to 48-40 at halftime.
Early in the second half, relentless Kentucky broke the game open, rolling to a 71-50 lead. As the Wildcats poured it on, Crum sat on the bench, chewing his gum, squeezing his rolled-up game program and looking like a man who had no clue. Once again Louisville had been done in by its inability to shoot the three-pointer or defend against it. This time the Cats outscored the Cards by 27 from beyond the stripe. Last year it was 24, and the year before, it was 30. Why, Kentucky shot three-pointers (11 of 21) better than Louisville did free throws (16 of 36).
As their bus rolled away from Freedom Hall late Saturday night for the 75-mile trip to Lexington, Pitino and his jubilant players could look forward to another season full of promise and excitement. As Rhodes said in the locker room, "We were pretty good, but we can be much better." Meanwhile, the shell-shocked Cardinals and their fans were left to wonder how their program went so sour and whether Crum will ever figure out how to compete with his unfriendly rival down the road. "We'll be all right," Crum said. But he was frowning, as if he didn't really believe his own words.